Homo Homini Lupus or the Falsity of Good versus Evil: Ukrainian-Romanian Relations

UkrainianThe narrative of international relations usually pursues a design based on the antagonism between good and evil. Most of what is being portrayed by the media in terms of inter-state conflict or tension relies indeed on rational arguments, yet what is fundamentally being argued for or against is the characterizations of the parties to that conflict as being the good or the bad guys. A clear example is the current situation with Ukraine and Russia.[1] Legal or moral-based argumentation is abundant in support of both sides, whether we talk of Kiev or Moscow. What each side, and the outside, is attempting to do, is to portray the ‘other side’ as being the true villains. Nevertheless, politics is rooted in interest, be it national, or group interest. Following such an assumption leads one to reinterpret the nature of each side’s foreign policy in less spiritual/religious terms.

Good versus Evil

In this article, the issue of national interest is being addressed, as one observes the lack of such a discussion when it comes to Ukraine. Regarding the current Russo-Ukrainian relations, the discussion is focused on principles such as territorial integrity, independence, and self-determination. On such background, Russia is described as showing disregard for these established elements of international law. Moreover, the use of gas as leverage puts Russia in the camp of the baddies. Its unfounded opposition to EU and NATO ties with an autonomous Ukraine betrays an archaic realpolitik approach to foreign affairs. The problem with this description is not that it is false, but that it is only half-right. Better said, the picture is incomplete. In reality, both sides are rational or less rational actors, pursuing a realist approach to international relations.

If Russia is the bad guy, it naturally derives from the narrative that Ukraine is the good guy. By analogy, if Russia is guided by national interest, Ukraine must be guided by higher moral values. Such a conclusion is not explicitly stated, but this is the false image that is being formed inside the mind of those following current events. And the truth is, Ukraine is no different than any other player in the game of politics. It is a state primarily motivated by material, valid and justified interests. In what follows, by addressing the Romanian-Ukrainian relations, we will prove that Kiev has been operating over the years as any other country. This is not at all a huge discovery. It is merely a reminder of the obvious.

The Ethnic Dimension

That Ukraine is a regular political actor operating on the basis of national interest should not even constitute an argument in need of evidence. It ought to be self-evident. Yet, an illustration of this could bring richness to the discussion over Kiev’s foreign policy. Romania and Ukraine have been strong partners over the last year, at least in rhetoric, regarding condemnation of Russia’s offensive behaviour. Despite this, dormant tensions are still present, for instance in the sphere of ethnic relations. During a March visit to Kiev, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis was declaring his support for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine. Also, he was declaring himself in favour of maintaining the sanctions regime against Russia, on the basis of the respect of the Minsk agreement. Overall, Iohannis was reaffirming Romania’s partnership with Ukraine.[2] While beautiful words were being uttered at leadership level, the Romanian community of Ukraine was complaining about Iohannis not visiting them. This would have been a significant sign of Romania’s interest in its own nationals living in Ukraine. The Romanian community has shown concern with ‘denationalization’, a process taking place in Romanian churches and schools operating on Ukrainian soil. The most important element in this case is the replacement of Romanian with Ukrainian as spoken language in these institutions.[3] If such process did indeed take place, it would not necessarily mean that the Ukrainian government is being hostile to its neighbours. It would simply mean that a statist and centralized political system is being put into place, on the basis of a national identity under construction. Such behaviour is in line with a national interest approach, while a good versus evil approach does not hold much value, other than to polarize public opinion.

Another recent event has been the refusal on part of the Ukrainian authorities to allow the entry of Moldavian former-Prime Minister Mircea Druc (a Romanian citizen) into the country, for visiting the inauguration of a Romanian cultural centre in the city of Cernauti (Chernivtsi). As a result, Romania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs pledged to demand an explanation from the Ukrainian ambassador to Bucharest.[4] Experts point to the ethnic dimension of Ukrainian-Romanian relations as the main source for negative interaction. Accordingly, in Romania, the view has been that its nationals are being treated in Ukraine worse than Ukrainian nationals are being treated in Romania. Naturally, in Ukraine, the perception has been the exact opposite.[5] The ethnic dimension goes back to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, on the basis of which the Soviet Union annexed in 1940 the territories that were at the time part of Romania, namely Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina and the Hertza region.[6] Parts of these territories now constitute current Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, with a significant presence of Romanian population. The most striking case is the one of the Hertza region, which is now a district of Ukraine’s Chernivtsi Oblast, and which is 95% populated by Romanian nationals.[7]

Ethnic Map of Ukraine’s Chernivtsi Oblast. Source: Wikipedia

Ethnic Map of Ukraine’s Chernivtsi Oblast. Source: Wikipedia

Territorial Disputes

Before Romania could join NATO, it had to resolve its territorial disputes with neighbours, including Ukraine. As such, Romania was signing in 2003 a Treaty with Ukraine regarding the border situation, on the basis of friendly relations. Basically, this treaty is the legal codification of the border delimitation between the two countries, delimitation that goes back to the times of the Soviet Union.[8] In effect, Romania has given up on its territorial aspirations over Northern Bukovina and the Hertza region. Nonetheless, other territorial disputes have surfaced over the last decade.

First, there has been a debate over the Snake Island (Insula Serpilor), a territory which by itself is not very valuable, but that has a crucial function in the delimitation of the maritime boundary between Ukraine and Romania. The entire territory in dispute stretches to 2,800 square miles, and the potential reserves of oil and natural gas under the Black Sea has put both states on the path of competing economic interests.[9] Furthermore, from a strategic-military point of view, the island is also perceived as a high prize, as it has been home to a Soviet military basis, to a naval and air control basis, and to an anti-air and maritime defence basis. [10] The delimitation of the maritime border has been ruled upon by the International Court of Justice in 2009. Accordingly, sovereignty over the Snake Island does not translate into Ukraine’s exclusive ownership of a 12,000 square km coastal shelf, beyond a 12 nautical mile radius from the islet. Not only, but Romania has been granted 80% of the 100 billion cubic metres of gas and 15 million tonnes of crude oil in the disputed zone, leaving the rest to Ukraine.[11]

Maritime boundary established by the ICJ. Source: Wikipedia

Maritime boundary established by the ICJ. Source: Wikipedia


Another point of contention has been over the Maican Islet, which has been the subject of recent Romanian claims. The piece of territory has been part of Ukraine, on the basis of the upper-mentioned 2003 agreement. Yet, due to a change in the geography of the place, the islet has allegedly become part of Romania. Kiev has been rejecting such claims.[12]

Finally, , in 2004 Ukraine has begun to build the Bastroe Canal, a project that Romania has described as illegal as its path would cross through the Danube Delta in opposition to a number of international environmental conventions. The Ukrainian responses pointed to economic and commercial interests as motives behind Romania’s protests. As such, Romania is wary of the competition that the new Ukrainian canal would bring to the former’s Sulina canal, thus to the former’s commercial monopoly over the Danube.[13] The opposite could also be argued. Ukraine is building this new Danube-Black Sea link in order to get a piece of the naval transit passing through Romania.

Bastroe Canal. Source: Google Images

Bastroe Canal. Source: Google Images



At the end of this discussion, it would be a mistake to conceive everything as proof of Romanian-Ukrainian hostility. The underlying arguments is simply that Ukraine too has economic and sovereign interests, as any other state on the word stage. Also, the existence of disputes between ‘allies’ in the face of Russian assertiveness points to the uselessness of portraying regional relations in good versus evil terms.

If Russia is the evil, and Ukraine the good, in the relations between Ukraine and Romania, who is the evil and who is the good? Could Ukraine be both good and evil, depending on the opposing party? Is this categorization useful for an informed analysis of political affairs? For instance, what is there to say about Ukraine with regard to its 2005 position towards the Transnistrian conflict? Was Ukraine the ‘good guy’ due to its involvement in the resolution of the conflict, regardless of Moldavian resistance? Also, Ukraine intended to replace Russian peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia with Ukrainian troops, to the detriment of Russian influence. Both situations could be interpreted as Ukraine’s desire to play a leadership role in the Black Sea region. But such aspirations met with resistance from Romania, a country that has also intended to play a major role in the region. More than this, Romanian officials were taking of Ukrainian unilateralism in dealing with Black Sea issues.[14] It is mostly the ‘baddies’ that are ‘worthy’ of being labelled unilateralist.

In conclusion, it is useless to define players of international affairs in moral terms. Under anarchy, each man is a wolf to each man, as Hobbes was suggesting many centuries ago. And Ukraine is no less of a realist actor than Romania, or than even Russia. The only difference is in the method of pursuing the interest, and not in the existence of the interest itself. Whether or not this difference can acts as a criteria for distinguish the good from the bad remains a topic for another time. But the nature of states has more to do with rational calculations than with morality.


[1] The purpose of this work is not to take any sides or to discuss the legitimacy of demands and the legality of actions. It is merely to remind the reader that both sides to the conflict are actors motivated by interests, and that the good vs. evil framework is false. Also, the discussion in this article does not touch on the methods of pursuing national interest. Whether it is being pursued through military or legal instruments does make a difference, but it does not cancel the existence of the interest itself.

[2] Preşedintele Klaus Iohannis la Kiev: România sprijină ferm apropierea Ucrainei de Uniunea Europeană, Stirile TVR (tr.) (March 17, 2015): http://stiri.tvr.ro/presedintele-klaus-iohannis-la-kiev–romania-sprijina-ferm-apropierea-ucrainei-de-uniunea-europeana_57891.html

[3] Românii din Ucraina, nemulțumiți că Klaus Iohannis nu s-a întâlnit cu ei, evz.ro (tr.) (August 11, 2015): http://www.evz.ro/romanii-din-ucraina-nemultumiti-ca-klaus-iohannis-nu-s-a-intalnit-cu-ei.html

[4] Mircea Druc, interzis în Ucraina. MAE va cere explicaţii ambasadorului ucrainean la Bucureşti, Digi 24 (tr.) (May 10, 2015): http://www.digi24.ro/Stiri/Digi24/Actualitate/Stiri/Mircea+Druc+interzis+in+Ucraina+MAE+va+cere+explicatii+ambasador

[5] Ghinea C. & Toma B. (tr.) (March 2013), Realism şi interese în relaţia cu Kievul. Concluzii ale Forumului Civic România Ucraina, CRPE Policy Memo, p.9: http://www.crpe.ro/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Binder-FINAL-UCRAINA2.pdf

[6] Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Romania and Soviet republics, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molotov%E2%80%93Ribbentrop_Pact#Romania_and_Soviet_republics

[7] Romanians of Chernivtsi Oblast, Geographic distribution, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanians_of_Chernivtsi_Oblast#Geographic_distribution

[8] Tratat între România şi Ucraina privind regimul frontierei de stat româno-ucrainene, colaborarea şi asistenţa mutuală în problemele de frontier (tr.) (2003)

[9][9] Marcu S. (2009), The Geopolitics of the Eastern Border of the European Union: The Case of Romania-Moldova-Ukraine, Geopolitics, 14:409–432, p. 419

[10] Insula Șerpilor – disputa unui punct strategic, Atlas Geografic (tr.) (April 18, 2015): http://www.atlas-geografic.net/insula-serpilor-disputa-unui-punct-strategic/

[11] EU’s Black Sea border set in stone, euobserver (February 3, 2009): https://euobserver.com/foreign/27525

[12] Dispută România-Ucraina pentru insula Maican, Romania Libera (tr.) (April 15, 2010): http://www.romanialibera.ro/actualitate/eveniment/disputa-romania-ucraina-pentru-insula-maican-183518

[13] România, relaţii tensionate cu Ucraina. Cel mai sensibil subiect, Canalul Bâstroe, Digi 24 (tr.) (February 21, 2014): http://www.digi24.ro/Stiri/Digi24/Extern/Stiri/Romania+relatii+tensionate+cu+Ucraina+Cel+mai+sensibil+subiect+C

[14]Larabee S. (2006), Ukraine and the west, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 48:1, 93-110, pp.106-107

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